1963 March on Washington resonated with mid-Missouri residents

Wednesday, August 28, 2013 | 6:00 a.m. CDT; updated 12:01 a.m. CDT, Thursday, August 29, 2013
Wednesday marks the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, a civil rights protest led by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., which culminated in the famous "I Have A Dream" speech. These file photos look back at the march on Aug. 28, 1963.

COLUMBIA — On Aug. 28, 1963, Gene Robertson, then 27, stood between the Lincoln Memorial and the Washington Monument in Washington, D.C., and saw hundreds of thousands of people gathered to march for jobs and freedom.

The weather at the March on Washington was "wonderful, as if God opened the sky for us," he said.

If you go

The "Let Freedom Ring" celebration at the state Capitol will mark the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington.

When: 1 to 2 p.m. Wednesday

Where: The grounds of the state Capitol in Jefferson City

What: The program lists a number of speakers who will pay tribute to King and present excerpts from his "I Have a Dream" speech.

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The words of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. came over the speakers loudly and clearly: "I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character."

Thousands of miles away, stationed in Asia with the Navy, 23-year-old Nimrod Chapel sat in his military uniform, surrounded by fellow servicemen, and listened to King's "I Have a Dream" speech through a radio.

"It was my feeling at the time that this was about making a greater America, a more perfect union," Chapel said. "It was not only about minorities but all of America."

Wednesday marks the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington, a rally held in hopes of spurring change within multiple facets of society, including employment, housing and discrimination in every sector, Robertson said.

It became historic. More than 200,000 people showed up to participate in the march from the Washington Monument to the Lincoln Memorial, according to an article from The Associated Press that ran the day of the event in the Columbia Missourian.

Robertson, now 77 and an MU professor emeritus of community development and a Columbia Missourian columnist, traveled to the march from Milwaukee on a Greyhound bus with about a hundred people from the Milwaukee branch of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, some singing "Kumbayah" along the way. They slept in the bus parked in a church parking lot 15 minutes from the National Mall.

"We knew it was going to be a rally, and it was going to be a march, but we never in our wildest dreams dreamed that so many people and so many buses from so many places arrived," Robertson said.

He had attended various demonstrations for issues such as welfare rights and segregated housing, and the march wasn't the only gathering that had a diverse attendance of people. But it was the magnitude of the wide representation of age, race and social and economic groups that stood out to him, Robertson said.

“You saw nuns; you saw rabbis; you saw all kinds of representatives," Robertson said. "Everybody was ready to say, let’s make America better than this, and, Washington, you can do something about it."

Despite the passionate crowd, there was little unrest. According to an AP article published in the Missourian the day after the march, the Red Cross expected injuries from the large crowds, but there were only three minor arrests, none having to do with violence by demonstrators.

"There was beautiful music, a beautiful atmosphere because everybody felt so good about seeing all the people, knowing that what you believed was what others believed and others were willing to make the trip to address it at a national basis," Robertson said.

He said he recognized people such as gospel singer Mahalia Jackson, march director A. Philip Randolph and National Urban League Executive Director Whitney Young Jr., though he could not see their faces in detail.

When King spoke, people forgot that his speech was being watched on TVs across the country, Robertson said. King spoke not just in terms of race, "but in terms of all kinds of -isms that impact people and that controlled how we view people."

Touching shoulders and elbows with others in the cluster of people, Robertson cried, but no one was ashamed to cry, he said.

"He was saying, see, look around you, and see what's important," Robertson said. "You couldn't help but look around you and feel what he was saying because it expressed itself in the mixture of humanity and was present, and that was a lot different than if you were in your living room."

According to The Associated Press, the demonstrators cheered each of the day's many speakers, "but they reserved their greatest applause for King."

King made the public aware of the various social changes that the demonstrators called for, "setting into motion the awareness and action for the concerns of all Americans," Chapel said.

"You were sharing your passion and your morals and your values and your expression of what America should be and what we could do with people, with so many others, and it gave you a sense of power that you didn't realize you were a part of," Robertson said.

Chapel, now 73, who lives in Jefferson City and is involved with the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, said King's speech was not aimed solely at African-American people, but rather at all Americans who felt they were not given the rights they deserved.

"The message conveyed to me at that time was that all Americans should have a dream and the opportunity to pursue those dreams based on desire and ability," he said.

Robertson and Chapel said they believe many of the issues addressed during the March on Washington remain relevant today. Robertson said the conflicts today are more complex because they are all interrelated.

"I still think all minorities, women, blacks, Hispanics, and everyone have not been fully integrated into society," Chapel said.

Half a century after the march, Chapel plans to attend Wednesday's "Let Freedom Ring" celebration at the Missouri Capitol, if his health permits.

Robertson said he doesn't have the same physical vigor to make a trip back to Washington, but he still has the desire to address those issues.

"You don't march to march, or march to be seen, or march to say you have been there," Robertson said. "You have to march to have a product that comes out of those efforts."

Supervising editor is Margaux Henquinet.

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